History of Science and the ‘Conflict Thesis’

by Jeroen Bouterse

One of the most simple, elegant and powerful formulations of the conflict between science and religion is the following bit of reasoning. ‘Faith’ is belief in the absence of evidence; science demands that beliefs are always grounded in evidence. Therefore, the two are mutually exclusive. This is an oft-repeated argument by modern atheists, and it connects different aspects of what is usually called the ‘Conflict Thesis’: the idea that science and religion are opposed to each other not just now, but always and necessarily.

The Conflict Thesis spills over into historical, cultural, and psychological ideas. This is precisely why it is ideologically relevant: the argument that religious faith engenders a habit of slavish unreason and deference to authority is a way of demonstrating that religion is incompatible with modern enlightened citizenship. Though atheists sometimes broaden the argument to say that faith in human despots counts as a ‘religion’ as well, the modern Conflict Thesis usually defines religion in terms of belief in God. God doesn’t exist, so belief in him is the paradigmatic case of belief in the absence of evidence. This distinguishes the modern Conflict Thesis from the classical 19th-century arguments to which historians often trace it: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. These works were not anti-theistic but anti-Catholic (Draper) or intended as an attack on religious sectarianism and a defense of proper religion (White).

The Conflict Thesis is, in all its forms, widely discredited among historians. One reason for this, no doubt, is simply the complexity of the history of both science and religion. Another reason is the fact that the birth of modern science took place in a world where everyone (almost literally everyone) was a theist. How could science, taken as the opposite of religion, have developed at all if virtually everyone in Europe was infected with what is by definition the most anti-scientific form of religiosity?

However, a defender of the Conflict Thesis might ask: isn’t the history of science, especially during the scientific revolution of the 17th century, littered with episodes of conflict between science and religion? That conflicts took place is without question; however, the question is what they were conflicts between. They usually represent something different than the Conflict Thesis, especially in its most recent form, predicts.

A particularly alienating feature of late medieval and early modern thought is that when someone came up with an innovation in the study of nature, its implications for the Eucharist could count as a major objection. The Catholic doctrine that during the ritual of the Eucharist, the bread and wine ‘transubstantiate’ to the body and blood of Christ (they actually change into a different kind of thing) without losing their ‘accidental’ qualities (such as taste or texture), was a key dogma that the Church guarded zealously. When atomists undermined the metaphysical distinction between ‘substance’ and ‘accident’, or when mathematicians seemed to underpin such atomism by starting to talk about ‘indivisibles’, or when Descartes argued that matter was exhaustively described by its spatial extension, Catholic theologians – the Jesuits in particular – got nervous.

When we see medieval and early modern theologians get nervous over scientific development, it’s almost never because they fear a challenge to theism; it’s because they see in them the roots of heresy. Even accusations of ‘atheism’ were often unequivocally intended not as accusations of denial of God’s existence, but of heterodoxy. Descartes himself (who famously proved the existence of God to his own satisfaction right after demonstrating his own existence) was, naturally, more optimistic about the implications of his system of nature for the Eucharist. He extensively wrote about it to his friend Antoine Arnauld, an expert theologian whom he convinced of his view that his philosophy still allowed for the body of Christ to taste like bread – provided the bread particles retained their original surface after transubstantiation.

If we interpret theological objections to certain theories in terms of a general conflict between science and religion, then, we are actually buying into rather conservative views on theological orthodoxy. That’s fine, of course: had we lived in the 17th century, maybe we would have judged that the more conservative theologians were right and Descartes’ theory was less favorable to the dogma of transubstantiation than were common versions of Aristotelianism. In that case, we could reasonably conclude that we have here indeed a case of scientific developments challenging religious orthodoxy. However, our judgment on the harmony or conflict between theory X and dogma Y in the context of 17th-century background knowledge Z will hinge on a lot of technicalities of early modern thought that render it very problematic to expand our conclusions to science and religion in general.

Conclusions about science and theism fare particularly bad, for theism and atheism were not even fault lines in 17th-century philosophical and ideological debates. In a world where everybody is a theist, belief in God is not a predictor of your psychological propensities and of your philosophical or ideological attitudes. In the 21st century, now that atheism as a worldview and as a movement is on offer on the market of ideas together with a lot of other live options, buying into it may reflect and strengthen certain preferences. But this – and that is the whole point – is a historical and contingent fact, not a necessary one.

History shows that what it means to be a theist or an atheist is a matter of historical or social context and human individuality, not of a binary logical scheme that says that if you believe in God then all your thinking is necessarily infected by ‘faith’. This is not to say that belief in God is equally reasonable as disbelief or agnosticism. The Conflict Thesis as spelled out above is not evidence in favor of atheism; in assuming that theism requires belief in the absence of evidence, it assumes atheism rather than proving it. It is perfectly well possible to defend atheism without any reference to the Conflict Thesis or similar arguments. Dismissing the Conflict Thesis on historical grounds is not a way of closing down the debate, but only of ridding it of spurious arguments.